ENTER THE DRAGON (Hong Kong, 1973)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

DIRECTOR: Robert Clouse
CAST: Bruce Lee, John Saxon, Jim Kelly
ROTTEN TOMATOMETER: 95% Certified Fresh
Everyone’s a Critic Category: “Watch a ‘B’ Movie”

PLOT: A Shaolin martial artist travels to an island fortress to spy on an opium lord under the guise of attending a fighting tournament.

I have just finished watching the quintessential ‘70s chop-socky kung fu flick, Enter the Dragon, Bruce Lee’s fitting, if all-too-early, swan song.  I now sit in front of my computer terminal and try to figure out how to review this movie that screams low-budget, from its liberal use of zoom shots and slow-motion, to the gloriously cheesy score from Lalo Schifrin, interspersed with kung fu yells during the opening credits, to the cookie-cutter nature of the bare-bones screenplay.

I sit.  I ponder.  By any “serious” metric of film criticism, this is not a “good” film.  Sure, it was probably groundbreaking for its time, but in the years since its release, other movies have trumped it on many levels.  I’ve seen movies with WAY more kung fu action (Drunken Master II, Kung Fu Hustle), movies with way higher production values (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Big Trouble in Little China), and movies with way better screenplays (Everything Everywhere All at Once, Kill Bill).

But Enter the Dragon has one thing those other movies don’t: the sheer charisma and magnetism of the master, Bruce Lee.  In every scene he’s in, Lee’s eyes always seem to be working, working, working, whether he’s having a conversation with a British official or defeating an opponent twice his size in a kung fu tournament.  His intensity radiates off the screen.  In one scene, he instructs a young pupil in short, clipped tones, exhibiting nothing but concentration and admonition.  Then later he wins a bet on an unusual animal fight – praying mantises – and check out his cocky smirk as he reaches out for his winnings.  He may not be subtle, but who cares.  He’s Bruce freaking Lee.

He is the single “x-factor” that elevates Enter the Dragon into the pantheon of hallowed action films.  If it had been made with another actor in the lead, it would have been forgotten a long time ago, the second half of a double bill for all eternity.  The story is decent enough, although it feels cribbed from more than one Bond movie, or maybe all of them at once.  The screenplay is…well, let’s say it doesn’t give its characters very good things to say.  One of my favorites is when Williams (Jim Kelly) looks at the vast squalor of the “boat cities” in Hong Kong Bay.  He shakes his head ruefully and says, “Ghettoes are the same all over the world.  They stink.”  It’s not exactly Tennessee Williams.

Then again, that may be one of the factors that works in the film’s favor.  We must come back once again to Bruce Lee.  With his imposing presence throughout the film, that fierce stare, that iconic yell, that chiseled physique, perhaps more realistic or polished dialogue wouldn’t quite fit.  If you’ve got an actor swinging for the fences, don’t try to hinder him, or anyone else in the film, with exquisitely crafted lines.  Accept the fact that all the characters, not just Lee’s, are intended, nay, EXPECTED to behave in very specific ways, and just switch your brain to “low-power mode.”  That’s where Enter the Dragon lives.

By the way, I’m a big Jackie Chan fan (he has a VERY brief appearance in Enter the Dragon as “Thug in Prison”).  I love the intricately choreographed, unbelievably long action sequences in his films.  Enter the Dragon has multiple fight scenes, but none of them are very long when compared to Chan’s movies.  Truth be told, some of the fights in Dragon feel a little…stagey.  But that staginess is balanced by, once again, Bruce Lee’s intimidating aura that brings believability to every scene because, by god, HE certainly believes it.

Is Enter the Dragon the end-all/beat-all of kung fu movies?  In my opinion, no.  That title goes to Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master II with its mind-boggling battles that go on forever.  However, Enter the Dragon is an excellent example of how any movie, however badly written or shot, can be improved with the right actor in the starring role.


Best line or memorable quote?
[after watching an opponent trying to intimidate him by smashing a board in mid-air:]
“Boards don’t hit back.”

Why did you choose this particular film?
First, I had to Google search “notable B movies” to see what would fit the bill.  I’ve seen Birdemic, Troll 2, and the execrable The Room, but I don’t own any of them.  I saw a lot of 50’s monster movies on the lists I found, but I don’t own any of them, either.  Suddenly, pay dirt.  Turns out Psycho qualifies as a B movie…who knew?  But that movie is too darn good to be lumped with movies like The Blob and The Tingler.  I needed a movie that exhibited its low-budget restrictions on its sleeve and still managed to be unironically entertaining.  Voila: Enter the Dragon.